Friday, 30 May 2008


In case anyone missed it and/or wants to see it in the theatre, Todd Haynes' film on Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, is playing at CineCube and Sponge House and is well worth checking out, especially given the bleak outlook at the multiplex cinemas (apologies to Indiana Jones fans).

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN (Hong Sangsoo, 2004)

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Woman is the Future of Man is the fifth feature of Hong Sang-soo, and offers similarities with his previous work while also looking forward to his next films, although I have yet to see either the film that precedes it, Turning Gate (2002), or the film that follows, A Tale of Cinema (2005). It is Hong's shortest film at 87 minutes, and also the one with the longest average shot length (99 seconds). There are only 51 shots, well over half of which last more than one minute (see shot breakdown here). The narrative form, while not containing the experimentation of The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), is nevertheless more difficult than his last two films and more in keeping with Hong's earlier obsessions.

The narrative begins with two men, Mun-ho, a painter and university instructor, and Heon-jun, a film director. After meeting outside Mun-ho's large house (he is married but we never meet his wife), the two men go to a restaurant to eat and drink. What follows is the longest shot of the film, over six minutes, most of which is a static two-shot (Figure 1). However, after the men argue (about a woman, of course), Mun-ho exits. Heon-jun asks the waitress to be in his film, she refuses, the camera pans over to her at the cash register, and then back to Heon-ju, who gazes out the window and makes eye contact with a woman (Figure 2), after which the shot finally cuts. We do not realize it yet, but this actually begins a flashback from Heon-jun's perspective about his relationship with Seon-hwa. Eventually, the film returns to the two-shot back at the restaurant (Figure 3). What follows is another very long take, the second longest of the film (over five minutes long) in which the earlier shot is repeated. This time, Heon-jun leaves, Mun-ho asks the waitress to pose nude for him, the camera pans away and then back, and Mun-ho makes eye contact with the same woman (I believe) (Figure 4) before Hong cuts. We then begin Mun-ho's flashback and his relationship with the same woman, Seon-hwa.

After these two flashbacks, the two men go to meet Seon-hwa again, and end up waiting for her at a bar (Figure 5). This shot is another two-shot, but now even the background of the earlier, simple shots is gone and we get only a wall. This is the nadir of the characters and their limited outlooks, and after Seon-hwa arrives shortly afterwards the compositions over the second half of the film become more crowded and complex (Figures 6 and 7). This mirrors the deepening of the characters' world. After another night with Seon-hwa in which both men sleep with her again (in the same order as before), we leave this trio and join Mun-ho and his students. Mun-ho takes a female student to a hotel for sex (a love hotel, as they are known in Korea) but they are discovered by a jealous male student. The final shot has Mun-ho and the girl discussing the possibility of being found out by the school. Here we have another two shot, but in the open air of the city (Figure 8). Eventually she leaves and the film ends with Mun-ho alone but yet framed against the vast vanishing point of the city lights (Figure 9). The ending denotes isolation, but also a denial of the type of selfishness Mun-ho has exhibited. The characters may deny the social world in their artistic solipsism, but the ending suggests that Hong wants to go beyond this.

A final note: one of my favorite filmmakers is Abbas Kiarostami, and one of the aspects of his work I most admire is the degree of self-criticism on display (an especially great example is The Wind Will Carry Us). I see a similar quality in Hong, and one that is becoming more and more present through his artist surrogate characters. His new film, Night and Day, moves further along in this direction.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Evaluation and Kim Ki-Duk

Generally, I try to write about films I admire or at least appreciate in some way, even if I criticize certain aspects. One of the most difficult things about being a film reviewer, I think, would be having to sit through and then write about movies you find either offensively bad or just uninteresting. Most films I see I end up liking, precisely because I know my own taste fairly well and avoid films I do not think will appeal to me. For example, I still haven't seen The Lord of the Rings and most Hollywood blockbusters from the past decade. Of course, this does not always work out. Directors who I admire occasionally make bad films, and there are critically acclaimed films that I end up disliking. And, occasionally, I'll watch something for scholarly or social reasons which I realize I probably will not like. But overall, I tend not to really dislike too many films I end up viewing. I give all the films I watch star ratings out of five. 2 and half stars or less would be a negative assessment, although films I give 2 and half stars to tend to have something redeeming about them even if they did not appeal to me on the whole. I have watched, by my count, 87 films that have been released since 2005 or later. Of those films, there are only 14 films getting less than 3 stars, and only 6 with 2 stars or less. In case anyone is curious, they are:

2 and a half stars

Jesus Camp
A Scanner Darkly
Inside Man
Sin City
My Blueberry Nights
Away From Her

2 stars

The Good German
Clerks II
Hard Candy

1 and a half stars

Little Children

1 star


What has this have to do with anything? Well, maybe nothing, but I do still believe in the idea and even the value and necessity of evaluation, even if I also recognize the contingencies of one's tastes. It is also a rather long preamble to a discussion of Korean director Kim Ki-Duk. As one may have guessed, I believe, on the basis of the two films I have seen, that Kim is vastly overrated. And while I usually keep my dislikes to myself, I thought it may be useful to try to articulate what about Kim I have an aversion to.

Kim's most well-known film, at least in North America, is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003), which played theatrically in art cinemas. For me, it was one of those 2 and a half star films. I didn't actively detest it, and certainly it was well shot (although more pretty than beautiful). But I found it essentialist and simple-minded in its attempt to be quietly profound. I also saw its view of gender and sexuality very reactionary, something its Buddhist transcendence seemed to be a cover for. However, it is unfair to dismiss a director on one film, especially one chosen for its exoticism to be imported commercially. Reading about Kim, I felt that his Address Unknown (2001) would be more to my sensibility. It is a drama set in 1970 in a small South Korean village near an American military base. The community has been ravaged by the war with North Korea and by the American occupation.

Theoretically, this subject matter seems very rich. However, almost everything about Kim's execution of this material bothered me, and by the conclusion I was about as disgusted with a film as I can get. Aesthetically, there is a little of distinction here (although I did like the opening shots of a gun being made out of a wood sign). Few of the images resonate, and Kim seems to believe presenting disturbing subject matter is enough. But more of a problem is how horribly schematic the plotting and its "meaning" is. In this regard, it is similar to two of the other films of recent years that really bothered me: Little Children and Crash. All three films feature characters that are simply abstract concepts meant to convey meaning. Within a certain style and context, this could work fine. I love Godard, for instance. But these films try to combine this with a nationalist melodrama and heavy-handed editing in which we are supposed to experience emotion and catharsis. Kim's film also suffers from some horrible acting from the American soldiers. While this is perhaps understandable and even forgivable, it is indicative of Kim's crudity. The film is nothing but symbols and meaning, and as a result really does not say anything at all, beyond reiterating South Korean xenophobia (as opposed to Crash's fantasy of the American melting pot, which was equally dishonest in its treatment of race).

Of course, I may be missing something. Maybe Kim is a Korean Douglas Sirk, cleverly using modern day violent melodrama to be ironic about Korean society and its problems. And it is entirely possible that I would appreciate later Kim films like 3-Iron (2004), Time (2006), or Breath (2007). However, after the experience of Address Unknown, it will take me awhile to get back on this cinematic horse.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

WOMAN ON THE BEACH (Hong Sangsoo, 2006)

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My exploration of the work of Hong Sang-soo continued yesterday when I was able to track down a DVD copy of Woman on the Beach, his most recent film prior to the just released Night and Day (2008). Having watched Hong's first three films in order, I am now, purely by (Hongian) coincidence, proceeding backwards in time from Night and Day. From an evaluative standpoint, I felt Woman on the Beach to be my least favorite Hong film. It has the plainest structure and is the least dream-like of all of his work, and the second half especially lacked the complexity of his other films. But it still intrigued me for a number of reasons, especially in connection with Hong's other work. Coming to Woman on the Beach without knowing Hong's oeuvre would, I believe, deeply reduce its meaning and enjoyment, although it could also cause one to unfairly underrate it (as perhaps I've done). Rather than offer a review of the film, what I want to offer here are a few ideas around both Woman on the Beach and the reading of Hong in general.

The Mysteries of the Hongian Zoom

Michael Kerpan, one of the best critics of Asian cinema, commented to my previous entry on Night and Day that he is still "pondering the mysteries of the Hong-ian zoom." Hong first introduces the zoom, apparently very obtrusively, in his previous Tale of Cinema (see review discussing the zoom in that film here). I first encountered it with Night and Day, and it is on display again in Woman on the Beach. Its use is still, on the whole, rather difficult to decipher. But there is one scene where Hong uses the zoom in a clearly expressive manner.

It is one of the longest takes in the very slowly edited film (ASL over 70 seconds; shot breakdown here), lasting over four minutes. It contains three zooms. After starting with a two shot of two characters, Jung-rae (a film director) and Moon-sook (the woman he and his junior colleague Chang-uk are competing over) (Figure 1), Hong zooms out to reveal Chang-uk and create a three shot (Figure 2). This is the zoom as formal play, as Hong had ended the previous scene by making the audience believe Jung-rae and Moon-sook were going to liaison away from the other man. As the scene progresses, Moon-sook reveals that while living in Germany she had serious (meaning sexual) relationships with two or three foreigners. At this point, Jung-rae begins a tirade against "unattractive" Korean women who leave the country and become desirable in foreign cultures where Asian women are eroticized. At the beginning of his speech Hong zooms back in (Figure 3), commenting on his closed-mindedness and the anxiety her admission has provoked. Tellingly, he states that he is not bothered about the myth of Western men having larger penises, unconsciously revealing, of course, that this is exactly why he is upset, and not the absurd reason he mentions. Eventually, she responds by saying that he is a typical Korean man. At this point, Hong zooms back out (Figure 4). Jung-rae leaves and the shot finally cuts. This scene is not only the most compelling of the film, but it is also a great microcosm, in its dialogue and zooms, for the entire movement of the work.

Hong and Psychoanalysis

"If an object is to take its place in a libidinal space, its arbitrary character must remain concealed. The subject cannot say to herself, 'Since the object is arbitrary, I can choose whatever I want as the object of my drive.' The object must appear to be found, to offer itself as support and point of reference for the drive's circular movement. . . (This was) the fundamental lesson of Lacan: while it is true that any object can occupy the empty place of the Thing, it can do so only by means of the illusion that it was always already there, i.e., that it was not placed there by us but found there as an 'answer of the real.' Although any object can function as the object-cause of desire -- insofar as the power of fascination it exerts is not its immediate property but results from the place it occupies in the structure -- we must, by structural necessity, fall prey to the illusion that the power of fascination belongs to the object as such." (32-33)

The above quote is from Slavoj Zizek, from his book Looking Awry, which I recently re-read. The passage came to my mind while watching Woman on the Beach and reflecting on Hong's work in general. While it was serendipity that led to this connection, I think the link between Hong and psychoanalysis is more than simply in my mind. Hong holds a fascination for formalist critics such as David Bordwell, but his films are equally compelling for a psychoanalytical reading.

As typical of Hong, Woman on the Beach features a scene that is a repetition of an earlier sequence. Figure 5 is a centered two-shot of Jung-rae and Moon-sook during their first moments alone together. It is the most self-consciously beautiful in the film, and its striking cinematography makes its replay later in the film all the more noticeable (Figure 6). This time, Jung-rae is with a different woman, Seon-hee, who he met earlier in the day. Although the scene replays itself, there is a difference beyond simply the woman herself. The framing is no longer centered and balanced, and it is also slightly to the right of the earlier alignment. I would propose that the reason for this can be explained by the above quotation. Whereas the meeting with Moon-sook happened by chance, the courtship of the later woman was deliberately planned. He meets her by asking to interview her for a film because she looks like Moon-sook. In other words, he tries to replace her in his libidinal structure, which he eventually does. But when Moon-sook returns the next day, he chooses to return to her. However arbitrary she may be, Moon-sook was found as opposed to placed. This allows her to maintain a sense of illusion and fascination. Through his slightly mis-placed mise-en-scene, Hong subtly conveys this concept.

The Value and Limitation of Formalism

One of the most memorable images from Woman on the Beach occurs when the director tries to illustrate his problem with women and the possibility of overcoming it. He draws a diagram (Figure 7) in which he illustrates reality as a amorphous blob. Within this, various events take place, which are represented as points. The problem is that we form an idea or shape that obsesses us. The small triangle in the figure represents Moon-sook's relationship with a foreigner, which is pre-occupying him. He argues that he can perhaps overcome this by focusing on all the aspects of her, forming a different shape that comes closer to represent her whole reality. Not surprisingly, David Bordwell discusses this scene at the conclusion of essay on Hong (it also provides the inspiration for the title of his piece):

"A little parable about ellipsis, the diagram illustrates the out-of-synch patterning of films like The Power of Kangwon Province and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. It also evokes the ways in which Hong's men, obsessed with an image of woman, make the same mistakes over and over. Interestingly, Moon-sook, the woman who is pursuing Jung-rae, finds the diagram clever but evasive. After denouncing Korean men, at the climax she will assert: 'I don't repeat things.'
It might be our director's new motto. After venturing very far into a hall of mirrors, Hong returns to everyday life and the minutiae of behavior. Having shown that a person's every word or gesture can harbor obscure correspondences, he is content to let us find them on our own. He no longer has to repeat things." (29)

While Bordwell's interpretation here is certainly debatable (I find it far more schematic in terms of positive versus negative characters than what Hong actually presents), it is valid and even compelling in reading Hong's recent films in relation to his earlier work. What I problematic is the way Bordwell seems to be willfully ignorant of the more troubling aspects of the scene. The fact that the triangle represents a relationship with a foreigner, which is then crossed out, is not even described by Bordwell, let alone analyzed. Yet it is key to the scene and how we interpret its meaning. How do we read the crossed out triangle? Is it a call for acceptance of people? Or an evasion of aspects of people we cannot accept and thus need to be eliminated? It is here that we need to move beyond formalism. And although I do not have the time or probably the ability to apply a thorough psychoanalytical reading here, it seems to be inviting one with its blotch of the Real, its "pieces", and even its coffin-shape (death drive, anyone?).

A final note: Hong's discussion of sexual anxiety and Western foreigners is the first I've come across in Korean films, which is admittedly a small sample. I'd be curious how far reaching this exclusion is. Also, this looks forward to Hong's next film, Night and Day, which takes place mostly in France but features an almost exclusively Korean cast, reflecting the continued isolation of Korean characters within another country. I'm interested to see if Hong continues to incorporate more notions of "otherness" is his next films. It seems a fruitful avenue to explore to move away from the notions of purity and idealism that haunt all his films with the exception of Night and Day.

Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge, Mass: October Books, 1991)

David Bordwell, "Beyond Asian Minimalism: Hong Sangsoo's Geometry Lesson," in Huh Moonyung, Hong Sangsoo (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007): 19-29.

Monday, 19 May 2008


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There are films that you encounter that are much more interesting to read and think about than to actually watch. For myself, the Korean political satire The President’s Last Bang (2005) falls into this category. It is a work so entwined with Korean society and politics that it cannot really be discussed without any contextual knowledge. I do not think it is a great movie, but it is certainly fascinating. After watching the DVD this past weekend, I also read the new book on Im Sang-soo published by the Korean Film Council, which provided much needed information on the place of the film within contemporary Korea.

To begin with, the version of the film available on DVD in Korea is cut. The President’s Last Bang is based on a presidential assassination that took place on October 26, 1979. The original version begins with documentary footage of political protesters along with the following narration:

“Park Chung-hee. In the autumn of 1979, his 18th year of rule since the military coup, unexpectedly large-scale demonstrations by students were held in Busan and Masan.
They resisted the oppressive administration and demanded democratization, but the Park administration mobilized the military and easily suppressed them. A suffocating false tranquility filled the air, and the citizens had no choice but to hunker down and live their lives to the best of their abilities.
Then, one day, out of the blue, Park Chung-hee was shot.” (32-33)

However, a court order eliminated this footage and narration, as well as documentary footage at the film’s conclusion that included:

1. Park Geun-hye in mourning garments in front of her father’s coffin
2. Large-scale funeral procession
3. Memorial address by Cardinal Kim Su-hwan
4. Weeping old men and women (41)

The absence of this material, which was eliminated on the argument that it could prove confusing to the audience that this was a fictional version of events, vastly alters the point of Im's critique. As Im himself states: "The Korean court ordered the deletion of the most important real images. It’s ridiculous.” (103) This is especially true in regards to the last images of people mourning Park's death:

“I knew what kind of person Park Chung-hee was, but when I saw his funeral, it was a real shock. This wasn’t the Joseon era, and it was thought of as truly uncivilized for adults to be beating the ground and wailing. Twenty-five years later, and still many people worship Park Chung-hee. This is wrong. I really wanted to bury Park Chung-hee for good. In the end, this is not a film about Korean society in the old ways, it’s about the Korean society of now, the masculine society.” (102)

Im's comments here echoed the reading put forth by Korean film scholar Jung Ji-youn in her essay, "“Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang: Death and Corpses." She begins by asking the question of why this film came when it did and links it to Slavoj Zizek's notion of the second death. For Zizek, there is both physical death and symbolic death. The problem was that Park may have been physically dead, but was symbolically of great importance.

“The economic crisis in Korean society in the late 1990s led to a crisis in the patriarchy and masculinity, and this gave rise to a reaction of political conservatism. Around this time, the mythology of Park Chung-hee began to be highlighted as explicit discourse in all areas of politics, society and culture. The fantasies of the right wing and the public summoned him as a mythical figure. . . The President’s Last Bang was a film that arrived at precisely this point in time. It arrived neither too late nor too early, but perhaps at a relatively precise time. Somebody needed to kill Park Chung-hee once and for all.” (31)

Of course, as Jung acknowledges and as Im found out, symbolic killings are sometimes more difficult than committing actual murder. The conservative press, including Korea's largest newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, attacked the film, as did Park Chung-hee's son, who sued for defamation of character. The best evidence can be found in the censorship ruling, which did symbolic violence to Im's text and prevented his full meaning from being expressed.

Upon the film's initial release, Huh Moonyung compared the film to a "genre painting." Jung agrees with this description because of the attempt by Im to deconstruct Korean history and myth:

“If the film is likened to a genre painting, it is because the ordinary and humble desires and fears of the people who were there at that bloodcurdling moment are depicted as nakedly as if the black cloth covering the sacred icon were torn away.” (34)

This puts The President's Last Bang in stark contrast to popular Korean films and television dramas when Korean history is continually mythologized. Early in the film, Im cuts from a shot of the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a 16th century Korean hero famous for battling Japanese invaders, to a close-up of KCIA director (and eventual Park assassin) Kim being examined by a doctor (Figures 1 and 2). Im is declaring his intentions to look behind the idolatry towards authority figures that he sees as still plaguing Korean society.

Discussing his approach to the material, Im states the following:

“I think that Martin Scorsese made GoodFellas as a response to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. He’s saying, ‘What are you talking about? The mafia’s a bunch of lowlifes.’ In my opinion, Scorsese’s depiction of the mafia is the right one. But cinematically, I think The Godfather is better. I had this conversation with Kim Woo-hyung (the film’s cinematographer): ‘I’m going to show a world of humans like in GoodFellas, and I want you to film it like The Godfather.” (106)

This quote is intriguing for at least two reasons. It shows how Im viewed his historical characters (as low-life gangsters); but I feel it also gets at why I found the film flawed. Although one can interpret Im's discussion of Scorsese and Coppola many ways, watching the film I understand Im's basic point. This film could have been a black comedy a la GoodFellas, but ultimately Im wanted something more serious in tone: “I didn’t make this film so that people would laugh and enjoy it. It may really seem funny that they look like lowlifes off the street, but the movie isn’t really funny, is it?” (107) There is a solemn tone that interferes with any easy enjoyment, which is why the often made comparisons to Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) are not really accurate. As Im explains: “It’s right to feel unpleasant after watching this film. I made it that way intentionally.” (112)

However, the overall style of the film comes closest to invoking not The Godfather, but rather the Coen brothers (who are also cited as an influence) and, within Korean cinema, Park Chan-Wook (the influence of The Godfather is mostly in terms of cinematography, as the above figures show, rather then editing or mise-en-scene). Huh makes a comparison of Im to Lee Chang-dong (15) in their similar attempts to deal with social issues in a popular form, but Im's actual style is far more conventional than Lee. Im shoots many scenes with the type of functional cutting seen in most popular films. Furthermore, his breaks with this style have a dazzling flourish achieved with digital CGI that recall the clean, spectacular images of Park, the Coens, or even Scorsese. Take, for instance, the lateral camera movement showing the KCIA's torture chambers (figures 3 and 4), very similar to Park's use of the technique in Oldboy and very different from Lee's treatment of torture in Peppermint Candy, or the overhead tracking shot surveying the carnage from the assassination (figures 5-8) which recalls the ending of Taxi Driver (an apt homage, ironically, since Travis Bickle's original target in that film was a political figure). What results is a work that is admirable in its deconstruction but rather nihilistic and cynical in the slickness of its design.

Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile film and one that improved for me on second viewing, always a good sign. And it is also a necessary intervention into the Korean social and political environment. Coincidentally, over the weekend I also saw the New German Cinema omnibus work Germany in Autumn (1978) at the Seoul Cinematheque. Germany in Autumn was made in response to the murder of a government official by the terrorist group the RAF and the subsequent suicide (or murder) of members of the group, a situation that had thrown German society into crisis. The opening section is directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and is the best part of the film. Fassbinder's contribution concludes with him arguing with his mother over politics and democracy and asking her what her ideal form of government would be. She responds by saying, "authoritarianism with a kind and benevolent leader." The Korean people mourning the death of Park Chung-hee, as well as the contemporary conservative press mythologizing his memory, seem to agree.

Huh Moonyung and Jung Ji-youn, Im Sang-soo (Translated by Colin A. Mouat) (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2008)

Sunday, 18 May 2008


The 2nd Taiwan Film Festival will be held at the Seoul Cinematheque from June 10th-26th. The schedule has not yet been announced, but will feature a career overview of the late Edward Yang as well as films from Hou Hsiao-Hsien. No information as of yet on English subtitles.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Link to Documentaries

I've added another link to a user with complete documentaries on youtube. One of these is The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, 2006), a great film exploring cinema through Lacanian psychoanalysis. It is narrated by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek and distills many of the ideas discussed in his various books, most notably Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (1991). I just re-read Looking Awry after many years and I think it remains a fascinating read and about as accessible as Lacan can get.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

More information on Bae Chang-ho Retrospective

The schedule for the Bae Chang-ho retrospective at the Cinematheque has been posted. There will be three films shown with English subtitles:

Whale Hunting (1984): Saturday, May 24th, 7:30pm; Wednesday, May 28th, 2:30pm

The Young Man (1994): Thursday, May 22nd, 5:00pm; Friday, May 30th, 7:30pm

Love Story (1996): Wednesday, May 28th, 7:30pm; Sunday, June 1st, 7:30pm

Again, I have no information about the films or the director, but getting to see Korean films with English subtitles in the theatre is a rare opportunity.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

LAKE OF FIRE (Tony Kaye, 2006)

After months of trying, I was finally able to track down, through bittorrent, Tony Kaye's abortion documentary Lake of Fire. The film has received praise as a relatively un-biased take on the issue, neither pro-life or pro-choice. I would agree to a certain extent. The film is not un-biased, as there is a clear point of view, but its perspective is not really pro-life or pro-choice. Rather, it is anti-pro-life.

During debates on pornography, there evolved a position that became known as anti-anti-porn. This described people who did not necessary support pornography but nevertheless disagreed with the anti-porn position, especially around the idea of censorship. I think Kaye takes a similar position regarding abortion. The film begins with a discussion by intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz, who describe the difficulty and complexity of the issue. Kaye also introduces Dershowitz's friend Nat Hentoff, an liberal atheist who is nevertheless pro-life. However, Hentoff's more intellectually legitimate position is not explored. Instead, Kaye focuses on the extreme religious right who support the shooting of abortion doctors and the bombing of abortion clinics. The only time Hentoff is shown again is when he argues that the pro-life position needs to be more consistent: not only anti-abortion, but anti-capital punishment, anti-war, etc. This is followed by the most persuasive argument of the film, put forth by Chomsky:

"It is very well established that as women have more opportunities, more education, as better medical care is available, as more family planning is available, fertility rates go down, abortion goes down, children are better cared for, women are healthier. Those things are known. Those are all things that are easily under social control and should not be controversial. I don't think there should be anything controversial about making sure that women have access to decent obstetric care. That alone would save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. If you want to do things to help women, there are very easy ways to do it. And it's not just true of women but also children. Unicef also reports that, if my memory is correct, 15 million children die every year from mostly easily treatable diseases, things like a lack of drinkable water, or dehydration, or diarrhea, things that can be very easily treated, and treatable for pennies a day from the rich countries. So, if you're serious about saving lives, about saving children's lives, there are easy ways to do it. On the other hand, if you look at the same people who are most militant about saving the fetus, are they calling for an increase in foreign aid? Are they concerned that the United States has the most miserable and miserly foreign aid program of any developed country, by quite a large margin? The country has plenty of wealth, the means are easily there, (but) the social policy is being designed to enrich the wealthy even further and let the poor suffer, let the children starve, let the mothers die, and so on. That's an overwhelming problem. People who are willing to address those problems we can at least take seriously when they talk about values. You can listen to what they say about other things, like abortion, which is a hard question. But I don't think we should be interested in discussing it with people whose values are such that they don't care about the massive problem of killing and harming women and children that they could easily deal with and are doing nothing about. In fact, making it worse, not doing nothing about it, but making it worse."

I would describe the film as anti-pro-life because it does not deal with people on the pro-life side who we can take seriously. People like Hentoff are not the focus, but rather easily dismissed zealots or political opportunists like Pat Buchanan (at the end of Chomsky's speech, Kaye cuts to a Buchanan speech at the American Life League, a political "shock" cut if there ever was one). This is not necessarily a negative, since the vast majority of pro-lifers cannot be taken seriously, and Kaye effectively critiques this position. However, he could also have interrogated the pro-choice position as well. Kaye does hint at this, since some of the pro-choice positions are not well argued (the female rock band, for example), but ultimately does not make this a significant part of his film (see Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth (1996) for a more neutral critique of both sides of the debate).

Why, then, would I not describe the film as pro-choice? Simply, it is the graphic imagery Kaye shows of an abortion early in the film which resonates in the mind. This is not the shock imagery used for pro-lifers, which is also shown but doesn't have the same impact. Rather, it is a matter-of-fact procedure shown of an abortion performed after 20 weeks in which we see the hand of the fetus in a washing bin. The disturbance of this image is such that it can potentially overwhelm any other facts and cause hesitancy in any pro-choice position. This is deliberate on Kaye's part. Most abortions take place before anything resembling a actual human has been formed. What Kaye wants to leave viewers with are the questions of when this takes place and what consequences this decision has on what the law on abortion should be (if any).

Although Lake of Fire is over 150 minutes long, it seems to need a sequel in which Kaye would tackle the actual difficulty of the abortion issue without concentrating on individuals who do not deserve the attention they receive. Unfortunately, as long as terrorist groups on the pro-life side continue to receive support, they have to be dealt with, and Kaye does this well.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Jeonju Film Festival IV: Bela Tarr

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Figure 11

Figure 12

The major retrospective at the Jeonju festival this year was devoted to Bela Tarr (previous years included Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chantal Akerman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Glauber Rocha, Somai Shinji, Ritwik Ghatak, and Peter Watkins). I was able to see Tarr's 1984 film Almanac of Fall (one of his two films in color) as well as his 435 minute Satantango, which was shown over eight hours with two intermissions. Following Satantango, Tarr was present for an hour long Q&A.

Almanac of Fall had moments of visual inventiveness in its treatment of a constricted space, but overall felt derivative. The story deals with an older woman and the various characters in her life, including her son and her nurse, who are battling for her trust in order to secure her money. The film felt like Fassbinder, particularly Chinese Roulette (1976), crossed with a Bergmanesque interest in close-ups. Tarr seemed restricted by the theatricality of these bourgeois characters, who he clearly detests (there's a little Michael Haneke here as well). Also, as Tarr has admitted, he does not have much interest in color, much preferring black and white. Although he tries to use color to expressive effect, it comes off as overly schematic. Still, Tarr's visual flair is apparent, especially with one shot that takes place underneath a floor.

Satantango, however, is an entirely original piece, not only in its length but in its ability to capture the materiality of life. The only other filmmaker who even comes to mind is Andrei Tarkovsky, especially Andrei Rublev. During the Q&A, someone asked Tarr about his influences. He stated that he is more inspired by music than other directors, reasoning that if he liked another filmmaker enough he would have no need to film himself. I asked him about Tarkovsky directly, and he stated that although he had seen and admired Andrei Rublev, he did not see the similarity. In addition to arguing that the camerawork is very different (which is true), he noted that Tarkovsky was different in that he believed in God, and that in Andrei Rublev the rain is cleansing as opposed to oppressive. I would qualify these comments by stating that Tarkovsky, like Bresson, was both a spiritual director and a very physical one. Additionally, the rain and nature in Satantango may be oppressive, but not nearly as much as the scenes of character interaction indoors. Because of the aesthetic intensity and at times beauty of the outdoor scenes (see Figure 1 particularly), not only visually but aurally, there is a majestic, almost spiritual, quality to these sequences. We should also not forget that the film is called Satantango, implying a dark inversion of Tarkovsky's view of God rather than a complete rejection. In fact, I feel the whole film offers a dark variation on Tarkovsky, including a sequence towards the conclusion that involves the ringing of a church tower bell.

Satantango is an adaptation of a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and tells the story of a number of characters living on a collective farm. Tarr's view of humanity is completely lacking in sentiment, and the characters are shown in all of their physical and emotional ugliness (Figure 11 is representative). But unlike Almanac of Fall, Tarr does not hate these people, and we as an audience do not as well. Before the screening, Tarr introduced the work by stating: "Try not to hate them. Love them and understand them." Part of how Tarr achieves this is the immense running time, which gives us a closeness to the world and rhythms of the people that we would not ordinarily have. Tarr claimed that he could have told this story in about 30 minutes if all he wanted to do was give us the plot. What he achieves through the concentration on the physical world (which he devotes as much or more screen time than the characters) is an anti-humanist work in the sense that humans are placed in perspective to their natural surroundings. Humans are not privileged. Paradoxically, this lack of concentration on these people allow us a greater empathy with their plight and situation.

The length of the film allows Tarr to create a number of repetitions and variations without these shots seeming as formal as they would in a more concentrated narrative. Figure 3 is the opening shot, while Figure 4 takes place over six hours later. The variation is striking (cows on the farm and in the mud, horses on the pavement in the town) but not immediately apparent (the similarity of Figures 5 and 6 is more obvious, but again the time gap in the shots gives them a naturalism they would not otherwise have). My favorite variation occurs with Figures 7 and 8. The later occurs near the end of the film, where we see the character Futaki leave for the last time. Without giving this character any especially redeeming traits, Tarr nevertheless allows for a certain admiration for this man. Part of this is through the parallel with the earlier shot. No longer on the farm, Futaki is heading onto the horizon of our modern world, not unlike ourselves.

Along with the extreme length, Satantango employs a radical long take style. The average shot length is 145 seconds, the longest currently on record at the Cinemetrics database (you can view the shot breakdown here). There is a certain perversity in these shots at times, such as near the conclusion when two bureaucrats are typing a document about all the characters and stop halfway through to have a quick snack, all of which Tarr continues to film. In any case, the style is not simply serving the story (a notion Tarr showed open contempt for in the Q&A; in modernist fashion, it is present for its own purpose and to create its own effect. Figures 9 and 10 are the opening and closing of an over two minute shot that slowly shows us a close-up of an owl. It is one of the most memorable images in the film, but cannot be clearly linked to anything in the story. At most, one can say it has some supernatural or mythic connotations (the same can be said for Figure 2). The film ends with a character who is mainly outside the main plot machinations. The character of the doctor has been left behind on the abandoned farm, and proceeds to board himself in, until all light vanishes from the screen. It is with this bleak image that Tarr ends his epic. Afterwards, when asked about the future, Tarr admitted he was frightened, while at the same time being uplifted that an audience can still enjoy this film.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of Tarr's biggest supporters and has certainly influenced my thinking and writing in this entry. There are links to two of his articles on Tarr below. In a Best of 1994 article, Rosenbaum wrote the following on Satantango:

"The film played here only once, at the film festival, with Tarr in attendance, and it says something about the involvement of the audience (most of whom stayed the film’s duration) that the subsequent question-and-answer session lasted about an hour."

Almost 15 years later and on the other side of the globe, I could describe the experience at Jeonju as being almost identical. During the second intermission, my impression of the film was one of admiration but also slight disappointment. I did not feel it was the masterpiece many had claimed. Over the last three hours, my entire experience was transformed. Most of what stands out in my memory comes from the last half, but only has the resonance it does because of the power of the whole. This may be the greatest experience I have had in a theatre, and indeed this film more than any other needs to be seen in the cinema. The DVD, valuable as it is, works best as a recalling of the original's power, not as a duplication of it.

Rosenbaum's Satantango review
Rosenbaum's career overview

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Jeonju Film Festival III: Hong Sangsoo

The only new film I saw at the festival was Night and Day (Hong Sangsoo, 2008), which debuted at Berlin in February. It has been in theatres here since then, but without English subtitles, so this was my first chance to see it. I have recently viewed Hong's first three films, but have not yet tracked down the four films he directed after: Turning Gate (2002), Woman is the Future of Man (2004), Tale of Cinema (2005), and Woman on the Beach (2006). Thus my comments below should be read with this caveat in mind.

The story begins with a title card explaining that the lead character, Sung-nam, a painter, has had to flee Korea for fear of being arrested for smoking marijuana (a serious crime in this country). Similar to Hong's other films, the narrative centers on his relationship with women. Unlike the earlier films, in which the narrative is retold, here the story involves multiple female characters that act as variations on one another (according to David Bordwell, Hong has been using this approach since Turning Gate, with the exception of Tale of Cinema). The structure is broken down by dates which are given in title cards, giving the film a diarist feel. However, the film's conclusion includes a striking dream sequence that makes one re-examine the entire story's reality (although not necessarily; this is not a twist ending).

Although there were surrealistic elements in Hong's first three films, Night and Day is the most Bunuelesque of his works, even including an homage to L'Age d'Or (1930). This is also Hong's most accessible movie and is the closest he has come to a pure comedy. It is recognizably a Hong picture, but with a very different feel. Of course, part of this feeling of my part may be the different viewing experience I had. Seeing Night and Day in a full theatre with a Korean audience who were responding favourably to Hong's absurdity was at radical odds with watching the first three films alone on video. Nevertheless, I think my comments about this film's more audience friendly nature are accurate. Upon leaving the theatre, quite a few audience members commented, "Wow, it wasn't boring!"

Thematically, Hong has seemingly left behind the earlier obsession with idealism and purity. The sexual obsessions of the characters are still present, but the presentation is more detached and distanced, more comedy than tragedy. Instead, the examination of the artist has become even more pronounced than the earlier work, or at least allowed to take more importance in the viewer's mind with the de-emphasis on sexuality. The idea of authenticity and responsibility in art haunts the film, although Hong is typically allusive in terms of the meaning of this in relation to the overall work. As usual, Hong is not constructing an argument with a clear meaning.

Stylistically, this is Hong's first film in HD digital, although it is blown up to 35mm. Since Hong has typically placed more importance on camera position, shot length, and mise-en-scene than beautiful images and cinematography, the move to digital makes a certain amount of sense and I did not feel it was a detriment. Hong includes a new stylistic technique by periodically zooming the image, a device not used in the earlier work I have seen. I would have to watch the film again to even attempt to offer an analysis of how this is used, but my initial suspicion is that Hong is not employing the zoom systematically to create meaning. Towards the end of the film, I had a thought that Hong was zooming into the lead character to offer a comment on his lack of awareness. While this may be true of individual uses, it would not be keeping with Hong's general tendencies to apply this interpretation to all uses of the zoom.

Overall, like most great directors, Hong shows the ability to maintain his auteurist distinction while avoiding a simple repetition of his early work. Although it is early, I would be (pleasantly) surprised if this film is not in my Top 5 of 2008.

Jeonju Film Festival II: Val Lewton

On the second day of the festival I saw the Kent Jones documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows along with the Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943). Being in South Korea, I was unable to see the Lewton documentary when it aired on TCM. It is an intriguing piece of criticism in arguing for the producer as auteur, and performs this task quite well. The documentary was narrated and produced by Martin Scorsese, and on a meta-level it can be seen as a producer-authored work; it is hard not to see the film as part of Scorsese's history of cinema documentaries as well as being a work of criticism by Jones.

The one reservation I have about the film is that it leaves the debate around Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur hanging. Jones includes interview footage of Tourneur and clearly implies that they were both auteurs of Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man (by comparison, Lewton is positioned as the author of the other RKO horror films to a much greater extent than directors Mark Robson and Robert Wise). It is disappointing that Jones did not bring this up and pursue the question more explicitly. It would have added a needed edge to a project that it useful enough but rarely as illuminating as one would have hoped for.

The Seventh Victim remains a very effective horror film, a work not as well known as Tourneur's films with Lewton because of the lack of a known director but just as unsettling. It is more lacking in story than either Cat People or I Walked With a Zombie, with the romance angle particularly sudden and disjointed, even by Hollywood conventions. But the main concern is with the same themes of those films: innocence/corruption, and even significantly rationality/the supernatural. It is remarkably sophisticated on these topics, which makes the sillier aspects of the story stand out even more. The ending remains one of the most shocking in Classic Hollywood (it seems unlikely it would have been approved with a larger budget). The film also gains in resonance with a knowledge of Lewton and the other RKO horror films.

I think The Seventh Victim also looks forward to many later psychological horror films, such as the work of Roman Polanski. As we were leaving the theater, my wife commented that it left her with a disquieting feeling reminiscent of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). In Korean, this feeling is called isanghae (이상해). Given the greater emotional and expressive range of the Korean language, this may be a better description of the Lewton effect than I can offer.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Jeonju Film Festival I: Alexander Kluge

My first screening at the Jeonju Film Festival was Alexander Kluge's Yesterday Girl (1966), the first feature film of the New German Cinema. Following the film there was a lecture on Kluge's career given by Ulrich Gregor, a contemporary of Kluge who is a former film critic and director of the Berlin Film Festival.

The New German Cinema comes after the French New Wave, and Yesterday Girl does show debt to the New Wave and its stylistics. However, Kluge's film goes further than even Godard's work up to that point in its distanciation techniques, pointing the way to Godard's late 60s work. And even more than the French New Wave, it is difficult to understand Kluge and the New German Cinema outside of the German national context.

This made the lecture by Gregor particularly valuable, since he was immersed in the same context as Kluge (he actually sat on the committee that approved funding for Yesterday Girl). Gregor noted that Kluge's films in particular are concerned with language as a discourse of power, which is difficult for audiences outside of Germany to fully comprehend. The problems encountered by the title character, an East German trying to survive in West German society, revolve around her difficulty with institutions. Another point argued by Gregor is that although Kluge is an intellectual and includes theoretical debate in his work, his films also include a great deal of emotion. On the basis of Yesterday Girl, I would disagree. However interesting the film may be, I found it rigorously alienating. Again, this may be due to the reliance on context, but I think it is also because of Kluge's abandonment of traditional narrative. Unlike Fassbinder in the mid-1970s and after, Kluge would never try to integrate the emotion of traditonal melodrama. As a result, he remains a much more obscure figure today.

Kluge has abandoned cinematic filmmaking since 1987 after negotiating a television deal in Germany (however, apparently Kluge is planning, with director Tom Tykwer, an over seven-hour adaptation of Marx's Das Kapital). His television work consists over interviews with philosophers and other intellectuals. Gregor claims that there is over a thousand hours of these interviews, and Gregor also believes that these are so fascinating that he does not regret the fact that Kluge has abandoned the cinema.

As I mentioned previously, the Kluge retrospective is coming to the Seoul Cinematheque starting next Tuesday, May 13th.

Friday, 2 May 2008

UPCOMING: Bae Chang-ho Retrospective

May 20-June 3 at the Seoul Cinematheque, there will be a complete retrospective of the films of Korean writer-director Bae Chang-ho. No information yet on English subtitles. I am unfamiliar with his films, but his filmography is available at

GO, GO, SECOND TIME VIRGIN (Koji Wakamatsu, 1969)

I finally saw this film as part of a Japanese underground series showing at the Seoul Cinematheque. Go, Go, Second Time Virgin is on one level an exploitation film, and unlike many other Euro art/trash pieces of the period, it holds up in this regard. It remains quite explicit in terms of sex and violence even compared to today's movies, and would likely get an NC-17 from the MPAA. On another level, Wakamatsu tries to create a work of absurdist theatre. Pauline Kael once described Taxi Driver as a tabloid version of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground; I would best label Go, Go, Second Time Virgin as a tabloid version of Becket's Waiting for Godot.

The film begins with a gang rape of a 17 year-old girl on the roof of a building, an act which is stoically observed by another boy. After the rape, she falls asleep and dreams/remembers a previous rape on the beach (a scene shown in blue filtered color, including a striking wide angle close-up with the beach waves crashing in the background). She awakes and begins a prolonged discussion with the boy, starting with banal dialogue, including the phrase "ohayo", meaning "good morning". This is also the title of a 1959 film by Yasujiro Ozu, thus seemingly a homage/parody of the reserved classicism of Ozu (the scene also includes a woman hanging clothes, giving us a familiar Ozu image of clothes blowing in the wind on a building rooftop). The girl also mentions the date August 8th. Given the Japanese context, this is seemingly a reference to the bombings of Hiroshima (August 6th) and Nagasaki (August 9th).

Eventually, the conversation evolves into the girl asking the boy to kill her. We then learn that the boy has already murdered a group of people who forced him to participate in an orgy (shown in another color sequence and presented like an abstract painting). The next night, they re-encounter the boys who raped her, along with a few girls. The rooftop scene turns into an orgy of violence, with the seemingly impotent boy slaughtering the group with a knife, leaving him covered in blood. Wakamatsu inserts a montage sequence in which he shows pictures of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, who were murdered by the Manson family on August 8th of that year. The next day, the boy and girl leap from the building to their deaths, seemingly the only escape from Japanese society as represented by the apartment complex which overlooks the cityscape.

I cannot really add anything of any value to this basic description, other than to say the film is worth experiencing. As a work of surrealistic cinema, the film rivals the best of Bunuel and Lynch. Wakamatsu's more explicitly political 1971 film The Ecstasy of the Angels is also playing as part of the series. The series continues until May 12th and the schedule is here.